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A woman with a brightly-painted face holds up her pink dress
Carnaval, San Francisco, California in 2012. (Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress).

Reflecting on Your Culture by Exploring Cultural Festivals: Close Looking Questions & Activities

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This post was written by Carla Barefoot, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia and Spring 2024 Teaching with Primary Sources intern.

My first encounter with a primary source from the Library of Congress is a treasured memory that connects to my background, my family, and who I am.

When I was in high school Spanish class, we were assigned an introductory presentation to explain our cultural and national background. Since I am Bolivian-American, I was scrolling through internet images relating to Bolivia when I stumbled across this black-and-white photograph of a dancer performing during the Carnival of Oruro of 1970. This annual cultural festival features colorful costumes, performances by folk dancers, live music, traditional food, and more. I had never been to the festival, but I recognized it from my mother’s description, as she danced in the festival during her teen years. As a high schooler, I was truly moved to see my culture recognized and preserved in such a joyous way by the Library, a well-known federal institution. Years later, I recalled the impact the Library had on me, leading me to seek out the opportunity to intern with the organization.

Cultural Celebrations Across the World… and Close To Home

Although Carnival was my entry into the world of primary sources, the Library has other amazing items that highlight elements common to many festivals such as music, dance, clothing and floats. When searching for these photographs as part of my internship,  I realized that many of the images were captured in the United States. It may be interesting to explore this idea with your family with the following questions:

  • Why are these festivals in the US that reflect different cultures?
  • How might cultures move and change?
  • What role can cultural festivals play in sharing culture through generations?

Activity: Create Your Own Festival

With the young people in your life, take notice of details from the images below and think through accompanying questions. Then, as a fun follow-up activity, reflect on traditions, history, music, food, or other cultural components your family engages in. You may also share about different cultural festivals that each member has attended and what happened at each. Encourage children to draw up or explain what they would imagine their own cultural festival looking like based on these reflections. Feel free to use the Library’s research guide on Family History for Kids or this handout on Preserving Family Stories to deepen your discussion about your own family and community’s own cultural history.

A group of six people wearing kilts and playing bagpipe walk down a city street in front of individuals carrying banners.
The procession winds its way through downtown Clarksburg at the annual North Central West Virginia Scottish Festival and Celtic Gathering parade that ends with a celebration at Clarksburg’s First Presbyterian Church. (Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress).

The scene from above is from the annual North Central West Virginia Scottish Festival and Celtic Gathering Parade that took place in 2015. The photo shows a man who is leading two lines of bagpipe players down the street. Listen below for a recording of bagpipes—the national instrument of Scotland– from the Library’s collections.

Another interesting image that depicts music being performed is this photograph from  a popular, well- attended parade in Barbados. As the summary states, the parade is part of the Crop Over Festival, which is a 5-week event whose origins can be traced to a celebration of the end of the Barbados sugarcane harvesting season in the 1780s.

Think about the following questions:

  • From looking at these images, how would you expect the music to sound?
  • If you were creating a festival about your hometown, what music would you highlight? Which instruments would be involved?
  • How would you want people to respond to the music played at your festival?


What often accompanies music? Dancing! Below are two examples of dancing during cultural festivals.

Performers in brightly colored costumes dance under white paper lanterns.
Obon Festival, Senshin Gakuin and the Dharma School of the Senshin Buddhist Church of Los Angeles, California. Photo by Amy Skillman. (Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project, American Folklife Center/ Library of Congress).

The photo above is from a scene of a Japanese event called the Obon or Bon Festival. From materials related to this collection that were created when the images were captured in 1982, I learned this event honors those who have passed away. The photo shows the older, more experienced, dancers front and center for this dance while the younger children position themselves behind them. To learn more about the Obon festival, along with other summer festivals, check out this American Folklife Center article.

Children holding hands and dancing around a pole decorated with green branches.
Image 6 of Midsommar Festival, New Sweden, Maine. Photograph by Ray C. Brassieur (Maine Acadian Cultural Survey, American Folklife Center/ Library of Congress).

In the photo above, the children are front and center as they link hands and circle around the maypole, the tall pole covered in greenery and flowers. Meanwhile, the adults stand back and watch or clap along. This photo was taken in New Sweden, Maine at a Midsommar Festival, a Swedish celebration that embraces the longest day of the year (the summer solstice) and the beginning of summer.

With your children, discuss the following questions:

  • Why do you think dancing is common at festivals?
  • From looking at the pose from the dance, what do you think the next dance move could be?
  • Do you think that different groups of people play different roles in the dance?
  • Are there any specific dance movements you know of or have learned that you would like to see at the festival you are creating? Who would participate in the dance? How would you want the dance to make people feel?


Clothes often hold great importance in preserving a culture’s values, history, and heritage.

A woman with a brightly-colored face holds up a multi-colored, ruffled dress.
Carnaval, San Francisco, California, 2012. (Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress).

For instance, take this image from a Carnival celebration where groups from different Latin American countries participate in the festivities. In the center of the photograph from San Francisco is a woman wearing a pollera, a vividly-colored traditional dress or skirt with ruffles. As I looked at the white, yellow, blue, and red of her dress, I wondered if she selected this skirt’s colors to represent her heritage.

A group of adults and children wearing the cultural outfits of the indigenous dance group Northern Wind Dancers.
Members of the Northern Wind Dancers from Pueblo, Colorado, at a Colorado Springs Native American Inter-Tribal Powwow and festival in that central Colorado city: rear left to right, Jarod Figueroa and his father, Raul Figueroa. (Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress).

The image above is of a family, descended from the Assiniboine Sioux Tribe of Montana, and who are members of a dance group that went to the Colorado Springs Native American Inter-Tribal Powwow and festival in 2015 when this photo was taken. In addition to the brightly colored garments that everyone is wearing, I also noticed materials such as fur, feathers, and beads.

Think about the following questions:

  • Have you ever seen this type of clothing before?
  • What is your favorite part of any of the outfits?
  • What type of clothing represents your culture? What would a drawing of a child’s outfit at your festival look like?


One of the most anticipated parts of a festival are often the grandly decorated floats that make their way down a parade route.

People in a parade watching a float pass.
Acadian Festival Parade, Madawaska, Maine. Photograph by David A. Whitman. (Maine Acadian Cultural Survey, American Folklife Center/ Library of Congress).

In the above image, a float highlights a family reunion and shows off a family crest. You may also notice that on the far-right side of the float is text that reads “Thank You for Coming,” both in English and in French, as the parade celebrates the French-speaking Acadia area in Canada.

An elaborate green parade float with several onlookers cheering.
Mardi Gras Parade, 2006, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress).

In New Orleans’ annual Mardi Gras celebrations, organizers, also called Carnival krewes, throw small items to those in the crowd. The spectators that you can see raising their arms may have been hoping for strings of colorful beads, small toys, fake old Spanish gold coins (doubloons), and other trinkets.

As you view these images together, ask your children the following questions:

  • Who do you think the people on the float are?
  • What elements do you like from each of these floats?
  • How would you decorate a float for your own parade? What would its theme be? Who would you want on your float?

Festivals are one way to ensure that cultures are preserved and joyfully recognized, no matter where they take place. They allow groups to feel proud of where they are from while also giving others the opportunity to learn more about a different culture. Explore this idea with the children in your life and have fun creating your own festival! Did you do this activity with your family? Leave a note in the comments to let us know how it went.

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